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December 13, 2011

English Toffee Bars

For a cookie exchange this month I made a bar cookie that I've had every year but never baked myself: my mom's English Toffee Bars. It's certainly one of our traditional cookies each year, and mixing bar cookies with cutout kinds adds visual contrast. This has a shortbread base, with the layer of chocolate and toppings that would be easy to vary if you want to mix it up each time you make it. I use dark chocolate to suit my personal taste and would use cashews on top if I were making it only for myself.

English Toffee Bars

1 c. Butter
1 c. firmly packed Brown Sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. Vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. flour
6 plain Hershey Bars
1 c. finely chopped Pecans

Cream butter and gradually add sugar, creaming until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then vanilla, salt, and flour. Spread cookie mixture on ungreased 10 x 15 inch jelly roll pan and bake 25-30 minutes in 350 degree oven.

When this comes out of the oven, break up the Hershey bars and set them on top of the cookies. Place back in oven a minute or two, just long enough to soften chocolate. Spread chocolate evenly over cookie crust. Sprinkle with pecans. Cut into bars when cool and chocolate has set.

If you're interested in seeing photos from the event itself, go here. The recipes are posted on various blogs with links below.

December 11, 2011

Plastic Canvas Needlepoint Pen Holders

I've made about a dozen of these pen/pencil holders for Christmas presents this year--fast, easy, and handy to have in your purse or backpack so you can always find your pen. I used a chenille yarn to make them a bit fancier. The box stitch is goes quickly so this project is fun to do while watching television or relaxing in the evening.

What quick projects are you handcrafting for the holidays this year? Please leave a comment or link on the blog! Happy holidays.

December 1, 2011

Day of the Week Kitchen Embroidery

I love the way these embroidered day-of-the-week kitchen towels were recycled as framed artwork! It sets a sunny tone and is a great way to memorialize a relative's handiwork. Whimsical bordering on the kitschy, this is a perfect fit for a dog-walking client of mine.

How do you protect embroidery to make it last through generations? Feel free to leave a comment below, or send your favorite picture to my email!

November 6, 2011

Customized Pet Carrier Purse

This cute little guy has a very inventive mom. She couldn't find a travel/carry pet bag that had the pockets she was looking for, so she bought a regular purse from the gap that was roomy enough for her little pup, cut holes, and hand stitched some plastic canvas of the type used for needlepoint or cross stitch.

The purse was lined, so she was able to insert the plastic canvas in between the layers, leaving the sheet whole for added stability. She made multiple windows on several sides and recycled an insert for the bottom from another bag that she didn't like as well. The purse she used had both handle straps and a shoulder strap, so she's able to loop the bag over one shoulder, or carry it freestyle.

I never thought to alter a purse to make it into a pet carrier. And I love the added pockets in her bag! I'll have to keep my eye out for one that would suit our needs.

October 23, 2011

Halloween Pumpkins 2011

These are my Halloween pumpkins for the year! They're made from kits I bought when I visited Underwood Family Farms earlier in the month. My house sits away from the street, and past homes have been apartments with really only a personal entrance, so I haven't really tried to decorate my doorway often in the past. I have to say, it's making the season so much fun this year!

Because I'm not carving into the pumpkins, I'm hoping they'll last longer, and draw less "critters"--both bugs and the squirrels/racoons/possums/cats that populate my neighborhood. These will also make great centerpieces if I end up hosting a Thanksgiving gathering. And they're recyclable, so I can use them again next year ~ or send them off to a friend's kids.

I think it's a great idea for a metalworker to sell at craft fairs. The small version (the ones I got) of the kits sold for around $15, with a larger version available for $30.

October 13, 2011

Recycled Needlepoint Bags

A few years ago, when my mom was cleaning out her craft cabinet, I took posession of several completed-but-unframed or old and no longer hung cross stitched projects. I pulled them out of their settings and took them to a friend who makes bags, asking her to use them as centerpieces in her creations. I then gave them back to my mom, sister, and aunts as gifts, keeping only these two for myself.

The cross stitched panel on each bag is lined with a protective layer of vinyl. My friend had free reign and picked out cute country prints to line the interior of the bag, as well as choosing the perfect upholstery print for the outside of the bag. She added grosgrain ribbon ties to the top for closure.

The two little dolls were stitched by my mom as an insert for a shelf with a heart shaped cutout, but I like having it in a bag that I can use practically on a daily basis.

The "Eat Dessert First" project is signed by my Aunt Edna, and I asked my friend who designed the bag to keep the signature.

It was fun having something personal and creative to give as gifts that year, and to see the recipients face light up as they realized the history behind the item. My mom uses her purse regularly still.

I've been stealing up finished cross stitches at thrift shops for several years, removing the frames, and setting them aside for my next wave. I'll be including some diaper bags in the mix as I've found lots of cute nursery pictures! I can't wait to see how these recycled items turn out.

Needlework Purse

I haven't had much time for crafting this year in between all the film jobs I've taken, but I'm feeling the holiday season coming and want to get back to it. My yearn for craft time has led me to look around at handmade things I've done, and soak up the inspiration to make time for myself.

Here's a purse I made a couple years ago. For several years I had a project-a-day needlework calendar that I would enjoy looking at. I finally became frustrated that I'd never made anything out of the over 600 projects I'd admired daily, so I picked one and used the pattern to make this little purse.

The stitch count is quite small, so I was glad the size of the project was limited. It took me several months to complete. And with all the work I put into it, I'm afraid to use it on a daily basis! But I do enjoy having handmade items in my home, and find the colors of this project soothing in my bedroom, where it hangs with my other purses. I'm sure the special occasion will come to break in this bag.

How have you used crafting to make practical items you touch and use daily? Please leave a comment on the blog.

October 11, 2011

An Awesome Fall Wreath

I finally took a photo of this fun fall wreath Chance & I have been passing on our walk the last few weeks.

It's delightfully simple--solid colored yarn wrapped around the entirety, with felt diamonds laid atop and held on by twine. Even the hook is handmade, by braided yarn in keeping with the wreath's colors. What a cheery way to welcome fall!

What do the most welcoming doorways you've seen lately look like? Are there any that have impressed you enough to make your own version? Please tell me about it in a comment, or post or send me a photo.

September 22, 2011

Blog Issues

I've been so busy this year, and more practical, dealing with life issues like my dog being sick and getting paperwork like taxes up to date. In August I traded in my eleven year old car, another project that required a fair amount of research. With all that going on, my blogging has been at a minimum, and this site has been on autopilot.

In three years of blogging, I've never been hacked. But for some reason, this month Google has decided this website is Satan, and brandished it with a bright red warning. When I finally sit down to get to the bottom of this issue, it seems to have melted away, only to return when I least expect it.

So if you know of a techno-"expert" fluent in Google or in Blogger, please send them my way. And if you notice a warning on my website, please bring it to my attention by dropping me a note at etrets (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks for sticking with me.

September 19, 2011

More Good Food Pie Contest Inspiration

Here are a dozen or so fellow contestant's pies from the 3rd Annual Good Food Pie Contest that I thought were unusual, beautiful, or had some inspiring flavor combinations that would be fun to duplicate.

Doesn't this Cherry Pistachio Pie sound like a good old fashioned Depression recipe?

And you know the one with soda pop in it would pique my interest as a Pepsi descendant....

This Mushroom Forest tart was so artfully presented, and I'm sure the herbs in these Mediterranean hand pies were individually placed.

Now don't you want to run into the kitchen to bake? ;o)

What are your favorite savory or sweet baking combinations? Feel free to leave a comment on this post.

See you at next year's contest....

KCRW's 3rd Annual Good Food Pie Contest 2011 at LACMA

Once again the Annual Good Food Pie Contest has come and gone, with much anticipation and angst on my part.

This year's 3rd Annual competition again had many changes to the structure of the event. It was held at LACMA, with many family-friendly kids activities surrounding the main competition and sampling.

(the check-in line)

I planned to enter both the cream and fruit categories this year; in the cream category, a tried-and-true recipe, my mom's chocolate marble cheesecake, and in the fruit, a more experimental pie inspired by the blackberries that grew in my garden this year. I've never made a fruit pie, let alone one without following a recipe, and I've never made pie crust from scratch, so the whole thing was a risk. I half expected the fruit pie to flop in the kitchen, and thought the cheesecake would be my salvation.

A friend of mine kindly let me borrow her beautiful kitchen in her new home to bake for the competition, as I have no counter space in my tiny apartment. I enjoyed the companionship of baking in a home with my friend and her husband, chatting as I worked. Baking in the unfamiliar kitchen was lovely, and the cheesecakes were beautiful ~ until the very last step, of resting in the oven for one hour with the oven off after baking. I mistakenly turned the dial of my friend's oven over the top, instead of back the way it came, resulting in the oven being turned to broil rather than off! Goodbye went the cheesecake, at least for competition.

On the other hand, the blackberry-toasted pine nut-homegrown rosemary creation I had concocted in my head solidified in real life better than expected. I visited at least three grocery stores to find frozen blackberries, so my fruit entry was very nearly mango-rosemary pie, but emerged triumphant after the whole cheesecake fiasco. On the stovetop I simmered the fruit, water, sugar, rosemary, a touch of vanilla, and cornstarch to create the filling, along with the toasted nuts.

I made cheddar crust from scratch, inspired by one of Evan Kleiman's pie-a-day posts from the first season of pie-mania. I used a Betty Crocker basic recipe, reducing the fat (Crisco) by just a bit and adding a couple cups of grated cheddar cheese. The dough's texture rolled out nicely, but I should have made more--I was unable to get the rolled out crust to cover the entire pie pan, so couldn't properly flute the edge. Instead my pie took a rustic form, with the bottom crust folded over the top like a tart.

I had bought stencils to add an artistic flare to my garnishes on top of the pies, but by the end of the cheesecake fiasco, then having to wing my fruit pie in every way, I had forgotten to save pine nuts for garnish, and had no energy left to be particular. I etched a sand dollar into the top of the pie for venting and left it at that, a bit deflated myself.

The next morning, I was in much better spirits and pretty proud of myself for attempting something new as I headed to LACMA for the competition. I arrived early to be assured of one door prize--an Emile Henry Pie Dish was promised to the first 100 to check in. As it turns out, I was in the wrong place, and way too early besides. So I had some time for some great photographs, and got to watch the crowds entering the museum, which opened about two hours later.

I found the right place in time to be the seventh pie checked in anyway, and this year's process was quite streamlined and smooth! One part I really enjoyed about the first pie contest was everyone was in a congenial mood and there to have fun, so people talked to one another while waiting in line. As the contest has become more organized, it seems to be all business. I was done in five minutes, and really didn't get to meet anyone or see anyone else's pie before it was checked in and cut into.

LACMA was a great choice for resources--they had all the manpower necessary this year for crowd control, and space containment. The judging once again was held in private, except for the five category finalists, which were judged onstage for best in show. Volunteers cut into pies on a private dock area, and judges tasted from only one slice. I wonder if judges got the full aesthetic value of each pie's overall appearance in the judging process. I was lucky enough in the post-press to find a couple shots that showed my pie on the judging table (above, #7), before and after sampling.

However it looked, my pie tasted pretty great! Without practice, I was afraid the interior would be runny, but on sampling day, the pie filling proved to hold up, with an almost gummy-like consistency. Fine-tuning the recipe next time will involve reducing the cornstarch. The cheddar crust was definitely the way to go. More room for experimentation in the crust will be to adjust my fats--I'd like to add some butter in place of a portion of Crisco next time for better flavor.

While the judges were busy on the loading dock, the pies (minus a single piece) were transported to the big tent for display and sampling, and arranged by check-in number. In not being grouped together by class, it was hard to get a sense of how many pies you were actually competing against. I never did hear summaries of the categories. But as usual, it was fun to see the array of combinations.

Because the competition was held at LACMA, the viewing and the tasting were open to all museum patrons. This meant there was no way there could be enough pie for the entire crowd, and the event staff were constantly trying to urge the crowd through the line faster. That was the biggest drawback to this year's contest. I have no problem including friends and family of contestants that come to root on their family members, but including random passerbys made the event unmanageable. After going through all the work to bake and compete, I was dismayed to only get one or two samples so that there would be enough for everyone. And being asked to serve your own pie meant you couldn't taste anything but those immediately around you as you were too busy to roam. Just being pushed for time is an affront; the reason I compete is to get to enjoy everyone else's creation, even if it takes me more than five seconds to read the card.

The apron fashion show was an annual highlight of the competition. This year was fun, with the participants weaving down the long line of the crowd. I've worn a different one of my Grandma Walker's aprons each year, and this year's above is the last I have without repeating. Putting on her apron always makes me feel close to my late grandma; I know she's have so much fun with me at these events.

I'll post my other favorite pie combinations in a separate blog entry. I'll be looking to see what changes are made to the event next year. Hopefully it'll be a more private event. For now I'll share my pie recipe with you, and look forward to making it again next spring with my homegrown fresh blackberries.

"Black Rose" Pie
Blackberry ~ homegrown Rosemary ~ toasted Pine Nuts on Double Cheddar Crust

for Crust:
3/4 cup Crisco
2 cups all-purpose flour
4-5 Tbsp cold water
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

for Filling:
3 bags frozen Blackberries
1 Tbsp finely minced fresh Rosemary
1 bag (about 1/4 cup) Pine Nuts, toasted
1 Tbsp Vanilla
1 1/2 Tbsp Cornstarch

Simmer filling over stove until fruit falls apart and sauce somewhat thickens. If sauce is too runny, strain out fruit, reserving liquid, and use only enough liquid to cover fruit in pie pan. Mix crust and refrigerate till cold; divide dough in half and roll two circles for top and bottom. Lay bottom in greased pie pan. Pour in filling. Cover with top crust and seal the edges. Cut slits in top crust for ventilation. Cook at 325 degrees for approx. 45 minutes or until golden.

September 4, 2011

Audrey's Chocolate Cream Pie

The best part of being home is always mom's cooking. Once again the dessert was cooked with so much anticipation that we dug right in, forgetting to take that lovely food stylized photograph. As you can see, the pie didn't suffer for attention.

This recipe comes from my Aunt Audrey via my mom. Mom says she made it often when we kids were growing up, but I didn't remember it--until I tasted it. Memories of scooping the filling out and leaving the crust on the plate flooded back. I've always been a picky eater. Luckily this is still just as good!

A two-step process is called for in the recipe, cooling the mixed ingredients before adding whipped cream. It also requires a double boiler, but my mom says she usually just places one saucepan over another one filled with water (not worrying about a tight seal between the two).

Chocolate Cream Pie

1 9 in. baked crust, regular or graham
16 lg. marshmallows
1/2 cup milk
1 lg. Hershey Bar with Almonds
1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Melt marshmallows and milk on top of double boiler. Add chocolate and stir until melted. Cool. Fold whipped cream into chocolate mixture. Chill 6 hours before serving.

September 3, 2011

Creative Ideas from the Pioneer Park Farmer's Market

I spent a great day at the farmers' market and craft fair at Pioneer Park. For once I remembered to bring a camera along to record some of my favorite ideas; for me, expos like this are a way to get some creative crafting inspiration.

These recycled~upcycled cake stands are made from vintage plates paired with crystal or brass candle holders as bases. They'd sell like hotcakes in Los Angeles at a place like the Melrose Trading Post, a weekly flea market, but I'd have to have storage space to hold them....

I loved the idea of making a display from a couple of old doors, hinged together, with grosgrain ribbon stretched between them, and clothespins to attach jewelry or cards.

The most creative idea of the day were these "Plumbers Posies" made from faucet handles painted in bright colors, with a wire stem for planting in the ground! They were selling for $10/$12 each. We do have a plumber in the family, so we'll have to experiment with our own version to give him a chuckle.

August 31, 2011

Chocolate Marble Cheesecake

The dessert that you would request for every birthday and every special event: in my family, Chocolate Marble Cheesecake is it. My mom clipped this from a newspaper, now so brittle and brown it could crumble, so it's time to reprint it here. The date is clipped off of my mom's copy, but I imagine it's from the early 1960s, when she first married.

It's normally made in a springform pan and comes out at least three inches high. But I was considering submitting it to the Good Food Pie Contest, so I practiced and photographed it in a standard pie pan. It came out wonderfully that way as well.

In the end I brought a fruit pie to the contest, but this is still up my sleeve for next year....Meanwhile, it'll be on my holiday table!

Chocolate Marble Cheesecake

1 Cup Fine Graham Cracker Crumbs
2 Tbsp Sugar
1/3 Cup Melted Butter or Margarine

3 (8 oz) packages Cream Cheese, softened
1 Cup Dairy Sour Cream
2 tsp Vanilla
3 Tbsp all-purpose Flour
3 Eggs
2 Egg yolks
1 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup unsweetened Cocoa
1/4 Cup Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla

Combine first three ingredients and push into springform pan. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. Cool.

In a large mixer bowl, beat together cream cheese, sour cream, and 2 tsp of vanilla until smooth. Add flour, a tablespoon at a time, blending well. Beat eggs and egg yolks in a small mixer bowl on high speed until thick and lemon-colored, about five minutes. Gradually add 1 cup sugar and beat thoroughly.

Add egg-sugar mixture to cheese mixture and blend on low speed just until combined. Reserve 2 cups batter; pour remaining batter into prepared pan. Thoroughly combine cocoa and 1/4 cup sugar. Blend into 2 cups reserved batter. Stir in 1 tsp and spoon dollops of chocolate batter on top of vanilla batter in pan. With spatula or knife, swirl gently to produce a marble effect.

Bake in a preheated 300-degree oven, 1 hour 15 minutes. Turn off oven and leave cake in oven 1 hour without opening door. Remove from oven and cool; cover & chill. Yield: about 12 servings.

August 24, 2011

Garden Update: Hibiscus Hedge

My garden project of late has been establishing a hibiscus hedge in a particular bed directly ahead of the path leading in from the gate. I've planted seven hibiscus over time, all generic or from the "half-dead" pile. I've now seen each of them bloom, and found I've lucked out with some beautiful varieties! This sunset version is high on the list:

There's a pink with a dark center that looks apricot when backlit by the sunset:

My favorite is this last, a salmon colored bloom that seems to be doubled with almost twisted petals:

When it all grows in the hedge should be easy to maintain with lots of color in all its blooms.

What's your favorite bush or hedge plant that still provides color? Thanks for your comments to this post.
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